Army versus Imran: Battling the enemy within
As Pakistan remains poised on the edge of a financial precipice with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dragging its feet on the transfer of the last of the $1.1 billion tranche, the biggest challenge before Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is not just pulling the economy back from the brink.
His government must tackle the far more potent threat posed by former cricket captain and prime minister Imran Khan, who has tapped into the people’s anger against the military’s “imposition” of a new set of political proteges, as he defies not just Sharif-led Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition, but key power broker, the Army.
Less than a year ago, the former speedster with a growing cult following among Pakistan’s biggest demographic, the under-30s, was the star beneficiary of the military’s munificence. Today, he is the enemy within.
Three-time former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif who heads the PML(N), i.e., Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), is the only real counterweight to the iconic cricketer in the Punjab heartland. He remains in self-exile in London, waiting for corruption charges to be lifted, dispatching daughter Maryam Nawaz to lead the charge instead. To little avail.
The angry and the dispossessed are out on the streets with the latest standoff last Saturday, the ugliest so far. The shoot-out on the streets of Lahore and outside the Islamabad judicial complex do not bode well for a nuclear-armed Pakistan caught in a spiral of rising inflation and crippling cost of living and a rapid descent into anarchy.
With all eyes on Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led protest march in Lahore, tentatively scheduled for late Saturday night, both sides are playing for high stakes. The march is a well laid trap for a possible ban and arrest on terror charges if the Lahore rally turns violent, with Shehbaz’ government tarring Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for “taking up arms against the state”.
Already charged for use of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) police and armed tribals who rained firebombs and stones from behind a wall of containers to prevent Islamabad police entry to his home where they found guns and bomb-making equipment, Imran’s defense that the armed tribals were ‘unknowns”, “namaloom”, planted, like the bombs, has cut no ice in court. The judiciary, seen as fiercely independent, bristles at accusations of marching to PML(N)’s tune.
But Imran, who survived an alleged assassination attempt in November 2022, is adept at playing the victim, airing fears of a staged shootout between his supporters and police personnel, predicting he will be caught in the crossfire and lose his life, as did Bhutto scion Murtaza Bhutto, accusing police of plans to infiltrate the ranks of his supporters when he’s out, or en route to court.
And now, he has lost his trump card. The Election Commission of Pakistan postponed the April 30 Punjab assembly polls to October 8, while refusing to set dates for KP, the other state where the PTI was in power. Banking on a February Gallup Pakistan poll which gave him 61% of the urban vote and 31% to PML(N) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Imran had hoped to force early polls by dissolving both assemblies, and cash in on a sympathy wave to bring him back to power.
With that option thwarted, the 70-year-old, still smarting from being ousted in a constitutional coup last April—the brainchild of his former mentor Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa—is falling back on his hook of delivering a Quranic state, ‘Riyasat-e-Madina’, to grab the people’s imagination.
His legion of supporters have glossed over his inept governance in office, gross mismanagement of the economy and his hubris in the alienation of mentor Saudi Arabia. His impolitic diatribe against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while flying to New York on a plane loaned by the Saudi leader, unaware that the conversation was being taped and relayed to Salman even as it happened, is a case in point. Similarly, a refusal to allow Washington’s use of Pakistan airbases, revelling in the US’ shambolic exit from Afghanistan as “Afghans breaking the shackles of slavery”, going public with a cypher between a US official and Pakistan’s ambassador to the US that urged his removal, did not go down well with then army chief Gen. Bajwa or US President Joe Biden.
By supplying US-backed Ukraine with munitions, drones and now fighter jets, the Sharifs have rebuilt ties with Washington.
But rattled by Imran’s ability to bring hundreds out on the streets in an unprecedented challenge to the powers that be, the Sharif government has set in motion moves to disqualify him from participating in polls and holding office by tying him down in court cases while holding the threat of jail time over his head, not factoring in the consequences of street protests if Imran is indeed put behind bars.
Clearly, Imran’s open attack on the all-powerful army, now led by the Sharifs’ pick General Asim Munir, is the red rag to the military-establishment bull. The army is unnerved by the divided loyalties of junior officers in the ranks, said to be not averse to an Imran Khan-led dispensation over the power wielded by the entrenched elite.
With a hitherto unsullied reputation for playing by the book, Gen. Munir refuses to heed Imran’s repeated summons for a face-to-face meet, saying as army chief he will only confer with the country’s premier.
This was unlike the time when he held office and was managed—not always successfully—by Gen. Bajwa and the man who has grown into his chief adviser today, the canny former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen. (retd) Faiz Hameed. In fact, Gen. Munir was summarily dismissed from his post as Director General ISI in 2019 by Imran, a mere eight months after he was appointed, and replaced by Faiz, who orchestrated Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from office with an army-backed people’s movement that brought the then political non-entity to power in 2018.
Word is, Gen. Munir lost Imran’s confidence when he warned him against his wife Bushra Bibi’s attempt to sell official gifts and expensive watches—in the Toshakhana case—one of the main weapons in the Sharif armoury.
Disqualification? Detention? Capitulation? Which will it be for the fast bowler adept at the reverse swing?
Foreign policy analyst and author